Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Labour's New Heavyweight: Between Boxing Lessons and Books on Plato, the American Professor Danielle Allen Has Campaigned for Obama and Is Now Lending Ed Miliband a Hand. So What's Her Big Idea?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Labour's New Heavyweight: Between Boxing Lessons and Books on Plato, the American Professor Danielle Allen Has Campaigned for Obama and Is Now Lending Ed Miliband a Hand. So What's Her Big Idea?

Article excerpt

Danielle Allen is perhaps the most educated person to set foot in Westminster this year. At the age of 41, she holds two doctorates, one in classics from Cambridge and one in government from Harvard, and was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2002 for combining "the classicist's careful attention to texts and language with the political theorist's sophisticated and informed engagement". In 2007, she succeeded Michael Walzer as UPS Foundation Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the postgraduate centre best known as the academic home of Albert Einstein. She has written studies of the Athenian legal system (The World of Prometheus), citizenship (Talking to Strangers), Plato (Why Plato Wrote) and, most recently, the Declaration of Independence (Why the Declaration of Independence Matters). She also served as a field organiser for the Obama campaign in 2008 and is a keen amateur boxer (trained by a coach called "Heavy"). Now, she has been invited to join the Labour policy review.

On 27 November, while most of Westminster was preoccupied with the imminent publication of the Leveson report, a group of Labour MPs, think-tankers and academics gathered in a House of Commons committee room to listen to Allen deliver a seminar on the "connected society". The following day, shortly after Prime Minister's Questions, Ed Miliband met her to discuss how her ideas could aid his party's renewal. "Your 'one nation' should also be a 'connected nation'," Allen told her audience at the Commons. But what is a "connected nation"? And why is Labour so intrigued by the concept?

When I met Allen at Portcullis House the day after the seminar, I began by asking her to define "connected society". "I think of a connected society as one that reflects bonding social ties while maximising bridging social ties," she told me. "Bridging ties are the ties that connect people across different kinds of social network, whether that's socio-economic, or ethnic, or religious, or occupational." What is the difference between the two? "Bonding ties are the more familiar, easier ones that come from your family and your immediate community. But bridging ties are the kind that really facilitate economic mobility and educational improvement, so a connected society maximises bridging ties."

The most successful societies, Allen argues, are those in which the major institutions--schools, universities, companies, the military, political bodies--promote links between ordinarily disparate groups. At the seminar, she pointed to research showing that "the majority of people who get a new job through information passed through a social network have acquired that information, not from a close connection, but from a distant one".

Chicken or egg?

Allen's vision became clearer when she told me about her social activism. While teaching at the University of Chicago, she sought to apply her theory by situating the university "within its community". She founded the Civic Knowledge Project to encourage links between the university and low-income groups on the city's south side. She also sat on the boards of the university's four charter schools and worked on the Odyssey Project, which gives adults at or below the poverty level the chance to resume their education.

Michael Walzer said of her: "A lot of political theorists are interested in political theory, but they're not much interested in politics. They are interested in what other academics are doing. But she's interested in the real world and that's, I think, an important quality."

When I asked Allen for some examples of connected societies, she replied: "In the modern context we don't really have any good examples. What we have are examples of failure, so one has to take the failures and from that point imagine the positive version." Allen, who is mixed race, cited present-day racial segregation in the US as an "extreme" case of disconnection. …

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